The North Korean Conundrum
In the prevailing American stereotype, North Korea is a failing Stalinist dictatorship held together only by the ruthless repression of a mad ruler who dreams of firing nuclear weapons at Los Angeles. Sooner or later, in this imagery, the Kim Jong Il regime, strangled in its Communist straitjacket, will crumble economically, and the only issue is whether its collapse will come in the form of an implosion or an explosion.
For George W. Bush, who says he "loathes" Kim Jong Il and wants to "topple" his regime, the assumption that Kim's power rests solely on repression has shaped the current US policy response to the much-discussed North Korean nuclear weapons program. Given patience and enough pressure on Pyongyang, Bush and his advisers appear to believe, the Kim regime will fall. Thus, it is neither necessary nor desirable to reward Kim for denuclearization with economic quid pro quos and security assurances that would merely help to keep him afloat.
What accounts for the emotional intensity of the Bush Administration's desire for "regime change" in Pyongyang? More broadly, does the conventional wisdom in the United States about the nature of the North Korean system, reflected in US policy, rest on an informed assessment of what enables Kim to survive?
The President's own explanation is that Kim is loathsome because he presides over an Orwellian totalitarian system. But one can agree that the North Korean system is indeed Orwellian while disputing the wisdom of a policy of confrontation. Moreover, there are other reasons why Pyongyang is demonized in Administration policy. North Korea challenges two American articles of faith: that the United States is entitled to be treated with deference as the "only superpower," and that Western-style democracy, together with economic globalization based on market principles, is now the natural, universal order of things.
Pyongyang refuses to defer to the United States and seeks to deal with Washington on a basis of sovereign equality despite its inferior power position. Although eager to obtain foreign capital and technology, it is seeking to do so selectively, on its own terms, resisting pressure for wholesale political and economic reforms, all at once, that might weaken the control of the Korean Workers Party regime. Above all, what exasperates many Americans about North Korea, no doubt including the President, is the very fact that it continues to exist at all and has not gone the way of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Communist states, thus finally confirming the ideological victory of the West in the cold war.
Media coverage of the nuclear negotiations with North Korea generally places Pyongyang in the position of the defendant at the bar in a judicial proceeding, with the United States in the role of judge, jury and executioner. Rarely does a journalist go beyond what is spoon-fed at State Department or White House briefings to examine the assumptions underlying US policy or make a serious effort to present the North Korean side of the story. This is partly because North Korea often smothers its position in a flood of crude anti-imperialist rhetoric that is painful to wade through and difficult to evaluate even for the journalist seeking to be objective. But it is also because most journalists facing a deadline are not given the time necessary to seek out elusive North Korean diplomats, or to read books about North Korea.
In any case, even if they did do their homework, much of the literature on North Korea has until recently reinforced simplistic, negative stereotypes. Most of the authors writing about North Korea have never been there and have had to base their assessments on interviews with defectors who were generally beholden, during the cold war, to South Korean intelligence agencies, or by working within the parameters defined by North Korea's propaganda output, much as Kremlinologists did in earlier decades. One of the more carefully researched books of this genre--North Korea Through the Looking Glass, by Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig--advertised its limitations with its title.
The media hype generated by the nuclear negotiations has now led to a spate of new books about North Korea and how to deal with it. Two of these, North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings, and The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong, make powerfully clear why the Kim regime is not on the verge of collapse.